McCullum : The Kiwi who learnt to fly

Modern New Zealand cricket captains used to have the air of ancient noble men. From Jeremy Coney and John Wright to Stephen Fleming and Daniel Vettori, they all were sedate theoreticians who look like librarians when they are not playing cricket. Their current captain defies that trend by being more of a warrior prince than a noble man. Brendon McCullum is flashy, swashbuckling and feisty. He is more like a Black Caps rugby player than a librarian. His body language displays the rhythm of the war dance of Haka, which the New Zealand rugby team – the All Blacks – perform before the start of each match. And he wins tough cricket battles too.

The following is a round-up of the team’s Test performance, his own performance in Tests, the circumstances in which he got the lead role and a crystal glass gaze into his immediate future.

How New Zealand fared in 2014

In 2014, New Zealand played three Test series: against India in New Zealand, against West Indies in West Indies and against Pakistan in the UAE.

India was the first country to tour New Zealand in 2014. They played two Tests. New Zealand won the first Test by 40 runs and managed to gain a draw in the second Test. The Kiwis won the series 1-0. New Zealand then went to West Indies to play a three-Test series. It was a closely fought series. The visitors won the first Test in Jamaica by 163 runs. West Indies hit back in the second Test in Port of Spain by winning the Test by 10 wickets. New Zealand emerged victorious in the third Test in Barbados when they eked out a 46-run win in a rollercoaster Test match. They won the series 2-1. It was the first time New Zealand had won an away series against a top Test playing nation in 12 years. Their final tour of the year was to the UAE, where they played three Tests against Pakistan. They drew that series 1-1. Pakistan won the first Test by 248 runs. The second Test ended in a draw. New Zealand hammered Pakistan in the final Test by an innings and 80 runs.

The series draw in itself is an achievement. The Kiwis came to the UAE immediately after Australia, who had lost both the Test matches in the series. It was difficult for the teams outside the subcontinent to adjust to the slow and turning wickets in the Emirates. Only South Africa, among the non-Asian teams, had managed to draw a series in the desert against Pakistan.

How McCullum performed in 2014

McCullum’s batting too has improved since he became the captain. He scored the first ever triple hundred by a New Zealand batsman earlier this year against India. Among the Kiwi batsmen, the great Martin Crowe had come the closest to scoring a triple century. He was out for 299 against Sri Lanka in 1991. Since then a triple hundred was a jinxed milestone for the New Zealand batsmen. None of the later batsmen, including Stephen Fleming and Ross Taylor, could break that barrier.

In the second Test match of the series against India, in Wellington, McCullum slammed a whirlwind 302 in New Zealand’s second innings, which ended up being a match-saving performance. That inning was no fluke. McCullum scored two double hundreds too in 2014. The first one was against India in the same series, in the first Test in Auckland. The second double hundred was against Pakistan in Sharjah. In fact, whenever he went past a 50+ score in Tests in 2014, he has gone on to score minimum a double hundred. His batting average as captain is 43.14 – higher than his career average of 38.19.

How McCullum got his captaincy

Now it looks a wise and well-thought-out decision. However, McCullum got the captaincy in rather clumsy circumstances. The New Zealand selectors have a policy of appointing captains on a long-term basis. They think hard and long before making the appointment. Once they make the call, they stick with it. Chopping and changing are not for them.

When Daniel Vettori stepped down from the top job in 2010, there were two candidates for the post: McCullum and Ross Taylor. A three-member panel was constituted to choose the new captain. Former player and then coach John Wright, former Australian coach and the director of New Zealand cricket John Buchanan and the chief selector Mark Greatbatch were the panel members. They adopted a procedure consisting of interviews and public opinion seeking for selecting the captain – much like some companies interviewing suitable candidates to pick the new CEO. Taylor won the race for the job.

Two years later, Taylor opted out of captaincy after a string of poor results. McCullum had been appointed as the captain for the limited overs team. Taylor was offered the chance of leading the Test side alone. But he was not open to the idea of split captaincy and he promptly resigned. McCullum was appointed the captain of all three formats in December 2012.

Later, former New Zealand wicket keeper Tony Parker prepared a “document in the best interests of New Zealand cricket”. In which, among other things, he revisited the circumstances that led to Taylor’s exit from captaincy. Parker alleged in the document that McCullum had had prior information on the coach Mike Hesson’s plans to change leadership of the side. The document implies a possible conspiracy between McCullum and Hesson to remove Taylor. McCullum quickly went for legal action against Parker, as the new document clearly tarnished his reputation and questioned his integrity. Parker quickly apologized and cleared the air that he intended no such allegations about McCullum and Hesson. In spite of the allegations, McCullum and Hesson are still going strong. They even managed to bring back Taylor into the team. Later, it was revealed that Taylor had suffered from an extreme form of self doubt. It was Martin Crowe who stepped in to offer him motivation, psychological suggestions and technical tips. Taylor is now a born-again batsman, churning out century after century.

Is McCullum lucky?

Overall, the team is doing extremely well under McCullum’s stewardship. Not just in Tests, they are producing good results in one day internationals (ODIs) and T-20 matches as well. They have lost only one of their last five ODI series – against South Africa at home. They defeated India at home and Pakistan in the UAE. The team is buzzing with a bundle of world class talents like never before. The team boasts of a bunch of terrific pace bowlers – Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner, Adam Milne and Matt Henry. New Zealand has some reliable spinners in Mark Craig and Ish Sodhi and some quality all-rounders in Corey Anderson and James Neesham. Kane Williamson is the main batsman of the side now, followed by Taylor and McCullum. Only thing they lack is a pair of solid openers.

Some say that McCullum is lucky that he has this kind of talent available at his disposal. No New Zealand skippers has had such a luxury. The earlier teams almost always revolved around a few individual players. Now, the players have to fight for their places. If a player does not play well, there are at least a couple of suitable replacements waiting outside the team. Is he lucky? Yes, he is indeed lucky; but he makes his own luck. He is leading from the front. The opposition fears his aggressive batting. If they do not get him out quickly, he will make them pay. The team mates respect him. He has managed to bring in unity in the team, despite some difficult circumstances under which he assumed the leadership of the side.

The litmus test the World cup 2015

Not many had expected McCullum to do so well as captain. Now, everybody knows that he is much more than a hard-hitting wicketkeeper batsman. He has always been a popular figure off the cricket field. He spends a bulk of his overseas T-20 league earnings to improve the domestic cricket structure in New Zealand. He helps out friends in need generously. Now, he has gained certain reputation as a captain too. The real litmus Test for his skills will be the World Cup 2015. New Zealand and Australia host the tournament. An important place in the history of New Zealand cricket history beckons for McCullum. If he wins it, he will be New Zealand’s greaTest cricket captain.

The last time the tournament was held in these shores, in 1991-1992, New Zealand came close to winning the tournament. They lost in the semi finals against the eventual winners Pakistan by four wickets. Martin Crowe who captained the side and scored a brilliant 91 in that semi final match is now fighting for his life against cancer. The medical opinion is that he may not live long after the world cup. It must be remembered that Crowe could not captain his side when Pakistan was batting in that semi final as he had suffered an injury while batting. The whole of New Zealand would want to win it for Crowe. They have the personnel to achieve World Cup glory. What the team needs is self belief. It would be McCullum’s biggest challenge: re-assuring the whole team when they play against the big boys like Australia and South Africa. If he manages to do that consistently, we could well witness an entire nation doing Haka dance on March 29, 2015. The warrior prince will finally show the world how Kiwis fly at the World Cup stage.

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